Anna Karenina only really caught my attention after the recent (2012) film, starring Keira Knightley. It’s famous for its costumes, mainly, considered ‘fashion porn’ – as were Keira’s gorgeous dresses on the promo circuit (Valentino? Erdem? Chanel? Elie Saab – my particular favourite? Check). I need to read more Russian literature in general, and Lord knows Tolstoy’s not exactly unheard of. Still, for my first go at a Russian novel (translated into English, I might add), a book close to 1000 pages seemed like a bold place to start. Spoiler-free review!
Anna Karenina focuses on a multitude of characters. At the heart is Anna, a charismatic, beautiful woman married to the amiable but stiff Karenin. Fairly early on in the novel she meets the youthful Count Vronsky, and soon begins an affair that compromises her entire life. Another character who receives a fair amount of the plot’s attention is Levin, a semi-autobiographical landowner who lives and works in the country, struggling with his largely disregarded views on agriculture and romantic progression with Kitty, a family friend who is reeling herself from Vronsky’s rejection of her and her own struggles to find an identity.
I read it in a month, and I’ve got to say, it didn’t feel like 900+ pages when I was reading it. All right, so the plot moves slowly, but it seems natural, with every setting and event having time to breathe. Each character is given his or her due attention, and alongside the events that heavily influence the plot you see the mundane day-to-day action and the smaller elements of their lives. This detail gives you a very clear idea of who the characters are and what their natures are like; it makes you wonder what will happen later and if you can predict their reactions to future events, almost as if you knew them in real life. Anna Karenina is not the only focus – rather each character is given their own arc, whether that’s finding romance, spiritual revelation, or progression in a political career.
The novel opens with an extramarital affair, with particular attention paid to the characters’ emotions. Straight away we see what is to come – and, perhaps more crucially, we see what the appropriate reaction was to adultery at the time. We see Anna convince her sister-in-law that forgiving and staying with her husband is the more practical course to take, and that their relationship can heal. Anna’s sympathy for the wronged party defies her later actions, or at least divides her conscience when she later engages in her own adulterous relationship. Yet at the same time she is fairly forgiving to the guilty party (her own brother, admittedly). Clearly her – and society’s – attitude towards adultery is not quite what it is today (in 21st Century England, at least).
Speaking of reading it in modern times… before reading Anna Karenina, I had no idea what Russian society was like in the 1870s. The novel is a fascinating study of the classes and social distinctions in Tolstoy’s Russian society (although he admittedly only focuses on the aristocracy), and also the way social attitudes are split into two camps. On the one hand, you have the rigid structure of Anna’s world that emphasizes a social importance and dignity in everyday life, but on the other hand you have Vronsky’s world of passion and hedonism, with little regard for consequence. Even with that small description, you can sense how dangerous it is for these two worlds to collide.
Vronsky is fairly dislikeable as a character. He puts his own feelings first and seems downright naïve to the eventualities of his actions; we see that fairly early on from the way he woos and then rejects Kitty. There is a telling scene where Vronsky acts like a bit of an idiot and doesn’t prepare adequately for a horse race. He bluffs his way through on pure good luck but mucks up a bit during the crucial moment and ends up ruining his horse, as well as losing the race. As a reader, you can sense that it’s pretty metaphorical. Is Anna the horse in their later relationship? A mare he tames but ultimately ruins with his own lack of foresight?
Anna is pretty dislikeable too, to be fair. The only character I sympathised with in that storyline was Karenin, Anna’s husband, fully aware of his wife’s affair and fairly reasonable about it from the beginning. He refuses to pander to high society gossip and trusts his wife: a healthy attitude, yet sadly one that doesn’t really work out for him. It’s unfortunate that in any kind of novel about a wife’s affair, the husband always suffers. It’s an old-fashioned perspective, of course, but there is always something emasculating about a straying wife (although Karenin’s romantic shortcomings are perhaps not presented on the same level as someone like Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘s Clifford Chatterley). Karenin experiences his own share of social disgrace as a result of the adultery, although Anna (naturally) suffers more.
Much of the novel concerns the breaking of social boundaries and norms; the characters constantly move away from what they are traditionally expected to do and instead do what they feel passionate about. A good example is Levin – during one of the nicest scenes in the novel, he abandons his post of simply watching and supervising the peasants’ work on his farm and instead gets stuck into the work himself, feeling a great sense of gratification and community as a result. Of course, Anna’s affair is the better example of breaking the mould – she moves away from the requirement to maintain a solid, steady marriage, and instead turns to passion.
Yet Anna Karenina did not feel like much of a love story. The structure didn’t help; after the initial flirtations, cautious whispers and guilty feelings between Anna and Vronsky, the book lurches forward in time to when they are in the heart of their affair. It seemed to me that the novel is much more about consequence than romance – indeed, consequences are what occupies conversation between Anna and Vronsky, not to mention the details of the relationship described by the omniscient third-person narrator, which includes the characters’ internal reflections. We don’t learn that much about how they feel about each other, but rather, what will happen as a result of their doomed affair. At the point of writing this part of the blog post I haven’t seen the film yet, so I don’t know for sure, but I have a strong feeling the cinematic adaptation will create much more of a love story than what was present in the novel (not least because a friend promised it’s chock-full of sex).
In fact, I’ve got to say; I didn’t care very much about Anna and Vronsky’s romance at all. I was much more interested in the secondary characters, with a particular fondness for Levin – his own romance with Kitty was much more heart-warming and interesting to read than Anna and Vronsky’s repetitive, destructive cycle. The blurb on my copy of the book reads that ‘[the novel is] evoking a love strong enough to die for’, but I’m not sure which love they’re referring to there. Just my opinion, of course. Levin and Kitty’s romance is supposedly based on Tolstoy’s own romance with his wife Sophia Behrs, so that might explain why there was a much more genuine sense of affection and companionship there.
I also found the book a fascinating look at parenthood, particularly in regards to how Russian aristocracy treated their children (not unlike how the upper classes would treat their children today, I expect) – in that I mean children were there to be admired at small intervals, as long as they were behaving well and not actually acting like children. In the novel, each parent has a different attitude to their children; Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly sees her children as a projection of herself, which explains why she is so besotted with them when they are well-behaved and altogether present a family portrait of love and fun, but gets angry and upset if they behave badly, particularly in front of guests. Anna has an interesting relationship with her own children – as the book progresses she grows more and more fond of her son Sergei (with Karenin), a love fuelled by separation (Anna has no hope of custody over Sergei once she leaves Karenin), but becomes increasingly distant towards her daughter Annie (with Vronsky), who is lovely but, according to her, still at that age where she is uninteresting, being too young to engage with the world around her. If I was writing an essay I would probably study how the two children and Anna’s attitudes towards them represent her relationships between the two men… but it’s a bit boggling to think about for one blog post.
It’s been adapted numerous times, but I chose to watch the recent and well-publicised adaptation that drew me to the novel in the first place – Joe Wright’s 2012 production, adapted from the novel by Sir Tom Stoppard (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame) and starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as Anna, Karenin and Vronsky respectively). The film got mixed reviews from critics and only has a 6.6 average rating on IMDb, but I thought it definitely worth a watch (er, maybe just for the outfits).
I’ve got to admit, it wasn’t half as bad as I was expecting (and loads more romance and sex), but I recognised why the critics didn’t like it. Wright staged the majority of the plot in a theatre; it had a rather Moulin Rouge-y feel to it, but the symbolism behind it being in a performance space didn’t sit well with what the book is actually about and the set was very distracting. At times it felt very self-aware, and one reviewer on IMDb summed it up as the director and his cronies going ‘look at us? Aren’t we clever?’ instead of creatively supporting the plot.
That said, I thought it was well-cast. Knightley was perhaps a little more flighty and youthful than the charming, dignified Anna from the book, but she was generally very good, and Jude Law made an excellent Karenin (the only role I’ve seen that makes him look unsexy – what a feat). Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky did occasionally look like a teenager with a moustache stuck on his face but I didn’t think he did as badly as the critics suggested he did. That might have been because I disliked Vronsky in the book, whereas some readers seemed to be utterly seduced by him (judging from their reviews). To be honest, the best in the cast for me was Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, who was cheeky and warm and just the kind of man you’d expect in the role. Levin and Kitty were also well-cast, though I thought it a shame Levin’s internal struggles on what kind of landowner he was to be and what kind of career he would have didn’t get more attention. Still, you can’t stick everything in in the space of two hours or so.
Goodreads: four stars. Bring on War and Peace.
[Coming next: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo]